The evening of 23 June is Saint John’s Eve. When the sun reaches its highest positive declination, summer starts and darkness is driven away. This both sacred and profane celebration was once one of the most felt in Rome.
Celebrations started on the night of the eve: the so called “night of the witches”. On this night, according to traditions, witches used to fly around and gather on the Laterano’s fields, summoned by the ghosts of Herodias and his daughter Salome.
In life they demanded and received the head of John the Baptist and for this reason were damned to wander around the world on a broom to expiate their sins. In order to keep out the evil, people used to light up bonfires, to arm themselves with torches and with holy water’s pitchers. Witches entered the houses through chimneys and as they were also afraid of crosses, people would make up crosses with springs and woods to block the chimneys. Before leaving the house it was customary to bless the beds, the door and the house itself.
From all the neighborhoods, people walked their way with lit torches to the church of San Giovanni in Laterano (Saint John’s church). They prayed the Saint, but is was also a moment to eat snails in the taverns and in the little stalls set up on the piazza for the occasion. Eating snails, whose tentacles represented discord and apprehension, meant destroying misfortune. Snails are also considered a lunar symbol.
Their retractable tentacles indicate a periodic regeneration, just like the moon with its cyclic appearing-disappearing death and rebirth. People ate abundantly and played trumpets, cowbells and little drums to scare witches away, so that they could not pick up the herbs they needed for their spells. Celebrations ended at dawn, when the Pope went to Saint John’s church to celebrate Mass.
It was also common usage to pick up Saint John’s herbs: it was believed that if they were collected on that night, wet with dew, they had pharmacological powers. People used to think that dew had very powerful healing powers. As Saint John baptized people with water, it was easy to ascribe miraculous powers to dew formed on the night preceding his celebrations.
As the saying goes, “Saint John’s night is the most favorable moment for must, weddings, wheat and corn”. This important Roman celebration has nowadays disappeared, but in many places the ” Saint’s John’s Bonfires” are still celebrated. These fires lit up in the fields are considered propitiatory and purifying, but this habit clashes with many European and even North African religions.